How Boko Haram bred a generation of kids as gunfighters
Trauma, miseries of life as an ex-child insurgent
A great deal of their injuries aren’t physical – Psychiatrists
The thing about a gun: its easy for a child to get trapped in the sickle curve of its blind trigger. Yakubu, 10, is a testament. Since he learned to squeeze his first trigger, he’s been enamoured with the gun. His weapon of choice, the Russian Kalashnikov, AK-47 rifle. It didn’t matter that it was the deadliest gun in the world. He was only too ecstatic to wield it. Armed with the gun, he hushed boys to sleep with bullets in Sambisa. He shot hot lead into their parents in Baga. He watched blood drip through their perforated innards to soak the bleached sands of Kalabalge. He abducted peasant girls and housewives too. The 10-year-old dispersed corpses into Borno’s scorched earth. But he “did it all to survive.”
“If I didn’t do those things, they would have killed me,” he said, explaining his ordeal as a former captive and combatant of the Boko Haram (BH) terrorist group. Now 16, Yakubu regrets his membership of Boko Haram.
His life would probably pan out differently had he escaped the clutches of the insurgents, when they laid seige to his village, in Gwoza, in July 2016. That sad incident put paid to his childhood and his dreams of attaining soccer renown.
Growing up, Yakubu dreamed of playing professional soccer. He yearned to play for El Kanemi Warriors of Borno, and afterwards, English Premiership’s Chelsea FC. He clung to his dreams even when quick with monsters.
At school and on the sandy pitches of Gwoza, he was fondly admired as a ‘standing 10,’ a skillful midfielder, who teased the passion and shrieks of many a soccer lover by his aplomb.
The future seemed rosy, gilt-edged, until the sad incidence of his abduction.
On that fateful day, the boy died in Yakubu, so did his spunk and promise as a soccer maestro.
Boko Haram stormed his village and burned his home. They shot his parents in the head, and stabbed his brother in the neck killing them. Then they whisked him, his brother’s wife and six of his childhood friends to their enclave in Sambisa forest, he said.
There, they forcibly conscripted him and his friends as child combatants. He said, “Few days later, they transfered us to Shababu Ummah, in the Chikungudu forest, in Kalabalge. There, we spent four months learning to use daggers, swords and machine guns.”
And Yakubu knows his guns. He knows when and how to shoot to merely wound flesh and bone. He knows when to crack the cranium, and go for the kill, delivering the headshot.
Sometimes, the casualty hits too close to home, like when he aimed his rifle at his best friends, Idrissu, 11, and Ilyasu, 13.
“They stole dried fish and tried to escape. They were my childhood friends but I was their leader. I was told to punish them. So, I shot them in the head,” he said.
Asides the two that he shot in the head, three of his remaining friends, Abdullahi, 10, Bashir, 12, Salihu, nine, and Hassan, 13, were killed during encounters with the Nigerian Army.
Shooting his childhood friends in the head; hardly anyone ever gets past that, let alone a child. But Yakubu shrugged off the incident, describing it as two out of his 22 kills. Keeping count was an ego thing. “The more people you kill, the more you are reverred,” he said.
At the Chikungudu bootcamp, Yakubu grew insentient. Perhaps because his captors taught him to use captives as target practice.
He said, “One day, when they (BH fighters) returned from a mission, they lined up their hostages before us and asked us to kill them. They said they were strengthening us to become men. That day, I killed six people.
“Two days later, my trainer told me, Yakubu, my god daughter is turning four today, you will kill four people. I thought he was joking but he thrust an AK-47 in my hands, and held another gun to my head, threatening to kill me if I refused to execute the hostages lined up before me. Instantly, I killed four of them.”
One week later, Yakubu gunned down four men while on a mission in Monguno. At that point, there was no turning back. “I enjoyed firing the rifle like they did in the movies,” he said, adding that their commanders made them binge on hard drugs including Tramol (A variant of Tramadol), LSD, cannabis, and codeine before and after they embarked on missions.
Ball in a pitch of thorns
In time, Yakubu settled into his new life, evolving from apprehension to a sort of understanding: that his childhood dreams, like a punctured ball, had deflated in a pitch of thorns. Thus he embraced life as an insurgent.
There was no time for regret: the power he felt squeezing the trigger and watching life depart his victims, filled him with blood lust. It kept him fiending for the ‘respect’ and applause of fellow child combatants, he said.
Due to his dexterity with the gun, he rose through the ranks at the boot camp and was tasked with the ‘honour’ of training about 120 boys including minors as young as four years old.
“I taught them to dissemble and couple assault rifles. I also taught them to shoot guns,” he said.
Yakubu got swept away by the thrill of life as a Boko Haram gun fighter until his squad got overrun by the Nigerian Army en route a mission in Gwoza.
“We suffered heavy casualities. I was the only one that survived the assault,” he said, adding that he was eventually arrested at a military checkpoint while trying to trek from Gwoza to Maiduguri.
“One of our girls (former sex captives) who got rescued by the army pointed me out to the soldiers. I was lucky they didn’t kill me,” he said.
Life as a village ‘serpent’
Upon his arrest, Yakubu was enrolled in the Nigerian Army’s deradicalisation programme tagged, “Operation Safe Corridor,” graduating as one of its early beneficiaries. He has supposedly “been rehabilitated and reintegrated” into society, according to military authorities.
But even though he has quit the battle field he faces a new battle with the demons within.
“Sometimes, I dream that I am in Chikungudu forest training boys. I dream that the army are chasing me…I pray for forgiveness. Everytime,” said Yakubu.
•A little boy draws an assault
rifle on a wall in Yobe
Photo credit: Bulama Bukarti
Laraba, his grandma and only guardian, disclosed that, “Since he (Yakubu) returned from the forest, he has been a shadow of himself. He keeps to himself a lot, and lashes out explosively at the slightest irritation.”
She said, “One day, he threatened to beat me up because I told him to stop smoking Indian Hemp because it made him ravenous, which is bad, because always have tiny rations of food to share. He threw his plate of food at me in a rage. Instantly, his eyes became glazed, bloodshot. He started trembling so hard. I couldn’t recognise him anymore. Ever since, I have become very afraid of him.”
Laraba does not know what her grandson had been through. She doesn’t know what he had done or how deeply he dug into the trenches of mayhem, to earn the trust and applause of Boko Haram’s rank and file.
“I don’t wish to know anything. Whatever he did belongs to the past. I am simply glad he is free. I lost my husband and three sons, including Yakubu’s father, to Boko Haram. Thank God Yakubu is back,” she said.
Even so, the 81-year-old lives wary of her grandson. “I am scared of losing him. Sometimes, he barks out orders in his sleep. He screams and threatens to kill people while sleeping,” she said.
More worrisome is Yakubu’s penchant for chanting Boko Haram anthems even when visitors are around. “It’s scary and embarassing when he does that…Some neighbours visit simply to get kernel for gossip. They call him ‘serpent’ behind my back. One of them boldly told me to either poison him or let him go before he kills me but he is my grandson, and I love him,” said Laraba.
Yakubu, however, insisted that “it doesn’t mean anything” that he occasionally sings Boko Haram’s anthems. “I am home now,” he said.
But for how long? Many former child soldiers, like him, return home physically but emotionally, they remain attached to Boko Haram, argued Mabel Sanusi, a clinical psychiatrist and specialist in war time trauma.
According to her, a lot of former child soldiers have been prematurely discharged by military authorities. “Many of them have not been appropriately weaned of the bigotries and violence fed to them by Boko Haram. They were abducted at ages as young as four, and violently thrust into a world of carnage, where they were forced to play the roles of killers and abusers. This went on for a period of at least five years in most cases.
“The fact that they were perpetrators doesn’t mean they weren’t traumatised. How do you release such boys into society without giving them adequate treatment? It’s wrong and very dangerous for us all,” she said, warning of the likelihood of a high rate of recidivism among supposedly rehabilitated ex-Boko Haram child combatants.
Deradicalisation not working – Gov. Zulum
Recall that Borno governor, Babagana Zulum, recently sounded the alarm that the deradicalisation of repentant Boko Haram members is not working. The military launched Operation Safe Corridor, in 2016, to deradicalise and rehabilitate ex-Boko Haram members. The aim was to reintegrate repentant Boko Haram members into society. More than 500 ex-insurgents have already completed the programme.
But while speaking at the North-East Governors’ Forum few weeks ago, Zulum warned that the initiative must be reviewed because some of the ex-Boko Haram members only come to spy on communities and then return to join the group.
He said, “It has been confirmed that the concept of deradicalisation or Safe Corridor is not working as expected. Quite often, those who have passed through the Safe Corridor initiative, or have been deradicalised, usually go back and rejoin the terror group after carefully studying the various security arrangements in their host communities, during the reintegration process.
“In addition, the host communities where the reintegration process is going on usually resent the presence of Boko Haram terrorists, even if they have been deradicalised, because of the despicable and atrocious activities they have committed in the past,” he said, stressing that the main goals of the deradicalisation initiative are not being achieved.
The governor advised that the best option is to immediately prosecute the insurgents in accordance with the terrorism Act, adding that ex-members, who were forcibly recruited but have been rescued or have escaped from the group, should be the ones to undergo the deradicalisation.
Boy, invisible in plain sight
While the world focused on Boko Haram’s mass abduction of women and girls, the terrorist group was stealing an even greater number of boys. Over 10,000 boys were abducted by the group and trained in boot camps in forest hide-outs and abandoned villages, according to government officials and the Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based advocacy group.
Yakubu is just one of at least 10,000 children and teenagers abducted by the group since its campaign of terror across the northeast and the Lake Chad Basin began in 2009.
With no formal database for the missing, it’s impossible to know how many boys like him, have escaped Boko Haram captivity since the group laid seige to northeastern Nigeria.
They have killed more than 5,000 people including children, and they have left almost double that number with serious injuries and disabilities.
“A great deal of the injuries aren’t physical. Too many among them have been traumatised. They have PTSD,” said Balkis Mohammed, a social worker and child psychologist in Maiduguri, Borno State.
Corroborating her, Maryam Bello, a volunteer social worker in Yobe State stated that the northeast is littered with childen and teenagers traumatised by an extreme cycle of violence. “Many of are living in denial. Many are not even aware that they need treatment. And the few, who are lucky to access mental health care live at very great risk of suffering a relapse, due to the persistent warfare wracking the region and its severe consequences,” she said.
According to Kyla Storry, a Mental Health Activity Manager with the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), “The situation remains extremely worrying. This longterm crisis – which affects more than 60,000 people in Gwoza and as many as 1.8 million people across Borno state – prevents most people from imagining a future for themselves and causes great psychological distress. As long as the crisis lasts, the need for mental health support will continue to grow. It’s crucial that mental healthcare is available to children and adults living in this situation.”
Ten-year-old Abubakr is undoubtedly one of the lucky few to enjoy mental health intervention, following his ordeal as a Boko Haram captive. He was abducted by Boko Haram in Gwoza, at the tender age of five. Abubakr lived with the armed group for five years but he found his way back home, with injuries. On his return, he was admitted to the MSF clinic where he underwent surgical treatment.
Soon after his return, he began to exhibit signs of psychological distress suggesting that he was traumatised by his five-year captivity. But after he started attending sessions with Maryam, an MSF counsellor, he gradually came out of his shell. In time he learned to accommodate intervention and warmed up to others. These days, he has found a knack for drawing and playing football.
The same could hardly be said for Yau Damina, who was abducted from Potiskum at age 14 by Boko Haram. Damina spent five months in Boko Haram’s boot camps, training to become a combatant. In five months, he developed deadly skills. For instance, he killed five men in the blink of an eye, because they disrespected and killed his team leader.
“I killed them because they disrespected and killed my team leader,” he said, in an exclusive chat with The Nation. Damina was eventually arrested at a wedding ceremony in his grandfather’s village.
He regrets his past atrocities. He has no hobbies, no dreams, and he has no hopes for the future. He is simply content living in military detention.
Like Damina, Ali Mustapha was kidnapped at age 14, in Marte, by Boko Haram.
He was subsequently held in captivity at the Chikungudu forest, in Kalabalge.
and trained as a combatant for three years.
Boko Haram child combatants
•Boko Haram child combatants
in a gun drill at a forest hideout
He said, “I have killed about 13 people in separate locations. The first time I killed, I killed five hostages in Chikungudu forest. They later came with three other people and forced me to kill them. I also killed five people in a village called Burssari.”
Mustapha said that “more than 500 children” his age, including younger ones, were conscripted as child soldiers in Chikungudu.
“They spat on us and refused to give us food whenever we dithered in doing what they asked of us. Sometimes, they kill dissenters,” he said, adding that at Chikungudu, their leader was Umar from the Mamman Nur faction of Boko Haram.
Mustapha was, eventually, intercepted by security operatives, while on espionage in Maiduguri. He was arrested at the Bakassi IDP camp after refugees identified him as a member of Boko Haram. He said he was sent to spy on likely soft targets at Baga Road, the Monday and Custom Markets in Maiduguri.
A work in progress
While the army’s deradicalisation programe has been described as a work in progress, it is still one of the most advanced efforts to de-radicalise terror suspects. One critical component of the programme is the rehabilitation of extremists in prison through religious reeducation, vocational training and psychological counseling.
Idris Mahmud-Abdoullahi, a Borno-based Islamic cleric and social psychologist, said, while the initiative is commendable, it is too early to determine the accuracy of any estimate of recidivism, particularly since there has not been enough time to study long-term effects of the de-radicalisation programme.
The programme initially focused only on inmates who were not directly involved in terrorist attacks but it later included radicalised detainees arrested in Sambisa Forest and repatriated from prisons of neighbouring countries.
The actual locations of the de-radicalisation centres are hidden from the public. “This is for security reasons,” revealed a senior military officer in the programme, adding that there are plans to expand its scope to include detainees’ families, in joint counseling sessions, to mitigate the likelihood of stigmatisation.
Fiona Lovatt, founder, Children of Borno (COB), a haven for orphaned children and other vulnerable IDPs argued that the government and must pay good mind to the kids’ healing process.
She said, “We don’t know what has been fed into their minds but it is clearly not the Quran because the Holy Quran is a healing balm for those who have suffered or are suffering. I have seen in Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the camps, such high faith; that they can sit in the squalor and hunger and poverty that they are dealing with and say ‘Alhmadulillah! Praise God, I am alive. My children are alive. I have lived another day.
“It’s wrong to say, they have been radicalised; they have been brutalised. So, we know there’s drugs involved. We know there’s violence involved. We know there’s emotional blackmail. Most of these kids have to kill or be killed. This is not some ideology. This is just some raw, gut torture. It is the sort of things Nazi did to train their soldiers. These are mind control techniques that has nothing to do with any religion,” she said.
•Boko Haram child combatants
undergo ideological brainwashing
In Lovatt’s perspective, it’s just an abject failure of society to care for those children. She said, “We must take care of children in need. I have seen children who have experienced the worst killings rise above their trauma to paint beautiful pictures. I have seen such children tend their own gardens, grow their own vegetables and learn two new languages. I have seen passion ignite in them and watch them yearn to become engineers, doctors, teachers when they grow up. I have seen such children heal in my home,” she said.
‘Shaytan has whispered into their hearts’
Yet for so many boys, disaffection is the most feasible rationalisation for Boko Haram’s appeal. Many of the group’s child combatants have little formal education. They live in straitened circumstances, surviving by menial jobs on the fringes of urban and rustic north.
You see them smiling and pleading for alms but deep down, they are very angry. And Boko Haram offers them a corrupted creed as platform to vent.
Eventually, they are goaded to believe that they are a crucial part of a great cause. A worthy movement geared to topple the government of the infidels.
“They misinterpret the Holy Quran and use it to justify the senseless murders they commit. Shaytan has whispered into their hearts,” argued Sheikh Mahmud Abdullah, an Islamic scholar and cleric.
There is no gainsaying Boko Haram’s creed of violence and wanton genocide is resonant among brainwashed minors. The compelling nature of the grievances articulated, and the pervasiveness of poverty justifies the group’s rationale for employing violence to express their grievances.
What are the group’s grievances? A history of corruption and neglect at the federal, state, and local levels of government, according to experts, is also a source of widespread dissatisfaction towards politicians, the legal system, and law enforcement.
These sentiments may be found in greater depths and concentration in the north than elsewhere in the country, argued James Forest, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, United States of America.
Boko Haram and its sponsors, of course, cash in on the situation; they manipulate the sentiments of the northern youth in recruiting them as soldiers. They lure them with food, money and a passport to paradise; they tell them that their religion is under threat.
If you ask Yakubu, Damina, Abubakr, among others, they would tell you that life as an ex-child insurgent is markedly tragic, harsh. Its hard to settle into their new lives. They have to relearn the old ways of communal life and humaneness.
But while they pick their way through the jagged horror of their past, will their hearts and memories retract the terror they visited on their innocent victims? Will the latter forgive?
As the antiterrorism war intensifies in Nigeria’s northeast, Boko Haram replenishes its ranks with a steady stream of boy combatants, moving child abductees cum combatants through neighbourhoods and forests, using military trucks and passenger vans to boot camps holding more than 1,000 boys on the watch of adolescent trainers.
Back in Chikungudu, said Mustapha, it was normal to see 10-year-old boys romanticise raiding villages, killing traditional chiefs and taking over their wives and daughters.
But when there is no activity. “We get restless and occasionally pick fights among ourselves. The fights get deadly at times,” said Damina, who confessed to killing five fellow child combatants for disrespecting and killing his leader.
Such is the tenor of life in the Sambisa and Chikungudu forest bootcamps, where prebuscent boys are mauled into killers by impatient adult commanders and adolescent trainers.
At their arrest or rescue, they find it harder reintegrating into normal life. Home becomes a strange, hostile space. Yakubu’s neighbours, for instance, call him ‘serpent.’
And in July 2020, some Borno communities protested the reintegration of “repentant Boko Haram members” among them; they asked the federal government to relocate the boys to the presidential villa, in Aso Rock, Abuja.
At the backdrop of it all, several ex-child insurgents must battle the demons within for control of their lives. If they are not consumed by the ravages of PTSD or society’s engine of enforced peace and punishing inertia, the rumours, judgmental stares of their relatives, and neighbourhood hostility, ultimately push them back unto the famished paths of mayhem.
There are many inescapably tormented by the intense dialogue of the conflicting personae trapped within their consciousness.
The present is marred by nightmares from their past. Yakubu, for instance, claimed he is okay and “back home now” but every night, he steals back to Chikungudu forest in his sleep. There, he orders recruits as young as four years to dissemble and couple AK-47s in the blink of an eye.
He is home physically but mentally, he is still living in the forest, raiding townships and dodging Nigerian Army bullets.
So engrossed is he with his innate demons that he neither sees the divinations of hope nor the possibility of rebirth.